House of Hypocrites

While congress is set to sit in judgment of President Clinton, many of its members have their own indiscretions to deal with. Lucky for them Ken Starr isn't investigating them and the notoriously lax ethics committee is.

When the Starr Report was posted on the World Wide Web a little over a week ago, few insiders could resist chuckling at the irony of the lurid document's electronic disclosure mere hours after a congressional hearing on Internet pornography. There was, however, an irony that was even less remarked upon: while the House of Representatives set a land-speed record to post online a report detailing the President's sex life, the legislative body still hasn't conveyed to cyberspace such simple items as legislators' complete voting records.

But the more immediate, yet underexamined, issue was whether or not Congress, based on the actions and oversight of its own members, really has the moral authority to sit in judgment of the president. While the impeachment process may be solemn and sacred, the same, alas, cannot necessarily be said about the Representatives and Senators who take part in it. "To be frank, if every ethics complaint or investigation was run like Starr's investigation of the president—start with something financial years ago and just keep expanding in search of duplicity—a lot of people up here would be in a world of hurt," says a veteran Republican Senate staffer. "But luckily, unless someone fucks up big time, that usually doesn't happen."

In the realm of sex-related malfeasance, memories of figures like Wilbur Mills, the Arkansas Democrat who in 1974 ended up drunk in the Tidal Basin with a stripper, and Mel Reynolds, the Democratic Illinois congressman convicted in 1995 for having sex with a minor, still loom large. Newer disclosures, like that of Dan Burton's illegitimate love child and Henry Hyde's home-wrecking five-year affair, cast a longer shadow on the Congress's ability to act as arbiter of the president's punishment.

Rep. Henry Hyde
Rep. Henry Hyde

And in recent years, numerous legislators have had questions raised about dubious actions with more public ramifications—ranging from illicit campaign financing to abuse of power. Gary Ruskin, director of the non-profit, non-partisan Congressional Accountability Project (CAP), believes it should be a given that the House and Senate should routinely send ethics complaints to outside counsel for investigation, and that Congress should promptly punish members who break ethics rules. However, he says, this rarely happens, because members simply don't like policing themselves. "The reality is, the ethics processes in the House and Senate are well-designed to impede, limit, curtail, and prevent the possibility of investigation."

Take, for example, the case of New York's own Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who made $37,125 in one day of stock trading in 1993. At the time, D'Amato's broker, Stratton Oakmont Inc., was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission—an agency overseen by D'Amato's Banking Committee. This fact seemed significant to Ruskin, and worthy of investigation. Ruskin filed an ethics complaint, which included a report from an independent consultant who had concluded that D'Amato had gotten preferential treatment from Stratton. Rather than launch a full investigation, the ethics committee quickly reviewed the matter and sent Ruskin back a letter saying it had concluded "that no improper conduct and no violation of law or Senate rule occurred."

The reason for this strange outcome became clearer a bit later when a well-placed Democratic source told reporter Mary Jacoby that then-Ethics Committee chairman and D'Amato's fellow Republican Mitch McConnell "was adamant" there would be no inquiry.

More recently, it's been reported that the Internal Revenue Service found that Senator Carol Moseley-Braun may have converted campaign funds to personal funds and not paid taxes on them. The IRS, which completed its own a 15-month probe of the matter in 1995, had recommended a grand jury investigation. But the Tax Division of the Justice Department twice declined to initiate any such proceedings. And though converting campaign money to personal money is also a violation of Senate rules, the ethics committee has yet to show any interest in investigating Moseley-Braun.

Part of the problem, says Ruskin, is that the Congressional ethics oversight mechanism—particularly in the House—harkens back to a line from Animal House: "They can't do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges." While any person off the street can file a Senate ethics complaint, the average citizen can't just send up an ethics complaint to the House. It used to be that a citizen needed either a "Letter of Transmittal" from one House member or the somewhat easier to obtain "Letter of Refusal" (a document indicating that a congressman was unwilling to go forth with an ethics filing) from three members in order to start an investigation. But as part of the House Republicans' "reform" measures, the Letters of Refusal option was killed in September 1997. And even if a Letter of Transmittal is obtained, there's no guarantee anything will happen. For example, using a bizarre interpretation of House procedures, the ethics committee still hasn't taken action on a 1996 campaign finance complaint filed against Newt Gingrich.

While there's no shortage of members willing to file complaints when it comes to prime political targets—Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat David Bonior among them—when it comes to either the small fry or the quiet-but-powerful, people tend to be more reflective. For example, while there have been a bevy of allegations swirling around congressman Bud Shuster, it took Ruskin seven months in 1996 to get the three required Letters of Refusal to start a probe. The reason? No one wanted to risk antagonizing the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who can easily give or take away valued pork.

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